K.C. Jones is the 13th Best Coach in NBA History

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Throughout the Offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 15 coaches in NBA History

Total Seasons: 11

Total Championships: 2

Regular Season Record: 552-306

Regular Season Winning Percentage: .643

Playoff Record: 81-61

Playoff Winning Percentage: .570

 

Why he’s great: Pride is the downfall of many great coaches. Jones’ predecessor in Boston, Bill Fitch, was arguably a more accomplished coach than him. But he had to run the Celtics his way, and it eventually cost him the team. Jones’ best trait as a coach was his least noticed: he knew how to stay the hell out of the way.

There’s something to be said for that. How much coaching does Larry Bird really need? Jones was smart enough to keep a steady hand on the Celtics without becoming overbearing, allowing them to operate as adults without risking an undisciplined locker room because he knew the veterans would keep it in line. Pat Riley was never able to do that. Phil Jackson is struggling with it right now. No matter how great a coach is, he has to know when to trust his team to figure things out naturally.

His reputation could’ve been much greater. He was fired after only three seasons coaching the Washington Bullets despite winning 155 games and making the NBA Finals. Had he been able to coach them through the decade, he likely would’ve been there to win the 1978 championship instead of Dick Motta. Had he won a title with an aging Wes Unseld instead of Bird, he might get a bit more respect from casual fans. Still, I’m not sure Jones is complaining about winning two rings and leading arguably the greatest team ever in the ’86 Celtics.

 

Why he’s not higher: Coaching Larry Bird is a double-edged sword. He doesn’t need much coaching, but he also doesn’t need much coaching. How much credit are we going to give someone who sat at the head of the best organization in basketball? He always had great players and, if anything, probably should’ve won at least one more championship.

The peripherals on most of his teams are also questionable. Every one of his Celtics teams won more games than their Pythagorean expectation would suggest, meaning they likely received an unsustainable amount of luck through things like bad bounces, 50/50 balls, officiating and so on. Not one of his non-Boston teams ever finished higher than 9th in offensive efficiency, and his short tenures with Seattle and Washington indicate potential discord we weren’t aware of.

If Jones had a more distinctive brand of coaching we might be able to overlook that, but there just honestly isn’t much evidence to suggest he was a particularly great coach outside of his great players. So by accomplishment he has to make this list, but it’d be unfair to rank him any higher than this.

Don Nelson is the 14th Best Coach in NBA History

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 30: Head coach Don Nelson of the Golden State Warriors yells against the Memphis Grizzlies during an NBA game on March 30, 2009 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Throughout the offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 15 coaches in NBA History

Total Seasons: 30

Total Championships: 0

Regular Season Record: 1335-1063

Regular Season Winning Percentage: .557

Playoff Record: 75-91

Playoff Winning Percentage: .452

 

Why he’s great: Arguably the greatest offensive coach of all time, Nelson coached parts of 31 NBA seasons and his offense finished among the top-5 in points per possession 13 times. He did it with players in Milwaukee you’ve never heard of and he did it with superstars in Dallas and Golden State, but the one thing those teams had in common was pace.

Along with Rick Adelman, Nelson was among the first coaches to embrace pace-and-space offenses. His Warrior teams finished in the top-10 for three point attempts every season he was there and often ended up much further, and he was largely responsible for developing an offense around the greatest shooting big man of all time, Dirk Nowitzki.

Though he never won a championship as a head coach, Nelson did orchestrate one of the greatest upsets in playoff history when his 2007 Warriors beat the 67-win Mavericks in the first round. Though his offense took center stage, Nelson’s strategy to use smaller defenders on Dirk Nowitzki unnerved Dallas, proving his versatility as a coach.

Timing proved to be Nelson’s greatest enemy, as his Mavericks managed to make the Finals the year after he left but did it largely by beating an Amar’e Stoudemire-less Phoenix team in the Western Conference Finals. Had he stuck around, he may have pushed Dallas over the top against Miami. In any case, he laid the groundwork for that finals team and even the 2011 version that won the championship.

 

Why he’s not higher: Nellie’s stubbornness proved to be his undoing on multiple occasions. Had he been willing to play Chris Webber at power forward instead of center he might have been able to keep him and build the sort of contender Webber eventually found in Sacramento. It’s also fair to wonder why Steve Nash improved so significantly after leaving Nelson for Phoenix. For whatever reason, many players who seemed logical fits in his system ended up thriving without him.

His lineup choices were also often rigid and too focused on star power and offense. Veteran Antoine Walker started all 82 games of the 2003-04 season for Nelson due to his reputation as a scorer, but he posted miserable .428/.269/.554 shooting splits and was among the worst defensive players in basketball. Had he been willing to play youngsters Marquis Daniels and Josh Howard more instead, the Mavericks may have finished higher than 26th in defensive efficiency.

That was Nellie’s fatal flaw. Though he wasn’t necessarily a bad defensive coach, he was so fixated on offense that he made decisions that ultimately caused more harm than good. Had he been more willing to try to coax scoring out of defensive players, his teams might have had more playoff success and he could have a championship ring.

John Kundla is the 15th Best Coach in NBA History

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Throughout the offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 15 coaches in NBA history. 

Total Seasons: 11

Total Championships: 5

Regular Season Record: 423-302

Regular Season Winning Percentage: .583

Playoff Record: 60-35

Playoff Winning Percentage: .632

 

Why he’s great: To most basketball fans, the NBA began with Russell and Auerbach, with 11 championships in 13 years, with Celtic green and only Celtic green. But before the NBA’s first dynasty was… the NBA’s first dynasty. Kundla led the Minneapolis Lakers to the NBA’s first championship and four of it’s first five. Toss in a BAA championship in 1949 and Kundla has as many rings as any coach besides Phil Jackson and Auerbach.

Those Laker teams are known for George Mikan, but Kundla’s development of other players like Jim Pollard, Vern Mikkelsen and Clyde Lovellette was largely what made the dynasty possible. Kundla not only managed to turn those players into stars, but also kept them engaged and focused on winning. He was beloved by his players and his teams were unselfish nearly to a fault.

Were it not for Kundla and Mikan’s dynasty the NBA may never have made it as a professional sports league. Basketball had never had a true marquee team, and the Lakers gave it one. Kundla may not be known to the masses, but without him professional basketball as we know it likely wouldn’t exist.

 

Why he isn’t higher: George Mikan was so far ahead of every other player at the time that it’s fair to wonder if he would’ve won those championships no matter who was coaching him. Though small by today’s standards, the 6’10’’ Mikan towered over every other player in the NBA and unlike Wilt Chamberlain, he had no Bill Russell to oppose him.

Kundla also brings to question what exactly this list measures. By raw accomplishment, he may be a top-five coach of all time. But stick him in the modern NBA and he’d like be lost. So No. 13 feels like splitting the difference. He probably isn’t 13th on a list of coaches you’d want for your team, but it would be unfair to leave him off entirely considering how greatly he lapped the field in his day.

Sadly, we could have more information on Kundla adjusting to a changed league had he stuck around, but he left the NBA permanently at only 43-years-old. Had he stayed in the league as long as most coaches, he might have eight or nine championships and be much higher on this list.

Who are the 15 Greatest Coaches in NBA History? Honorable Mentions

 

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Throughout the offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 15 coaches in NBA history. Here are the honorable mentions

Rick Adelman:

Why he’s great: Consistently developed championship-caliber teams that simply peaked at the wrong time. His best Kings team ran into Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers, while his three best Blazer groups were defeated by Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.

His offenses were as diverse as the personnel required, building a system that ran largely through Clyde Drexler in Portland due to his incredible scoring, but switching to an egalitarian ball-movement scheme with the Kings thanks to the great passing of his big men. The one consistent piece was speed, Adelman caught on to the idea of pacing and spacing before just about anyone else and nearly rode it to a championship.

Why he misses the list: Aside from never winning a championship? Adelman’s lackluster tenures in Golden State and Minnesota just barely knock him out. His Warriors won only 66 games in two years despite having most of the same talent from Don Nelson’s 50-win 1994 squad, and his failure to develop young players (besides Kevin Love) in Minnesota doomed him to the lottery in all three of his seasons.

That’s his secret weakness. Adelman was a brilliant coach for veterans who never quite could teach younger players. Player development is arguably the most important part of coaching, and Adelman struggled too much there to make the list.

Larry Bird:

Why he’s great: The Pacers improved by 19 wins during Bird’s first season and declined by 15 in their first year without him. He saved Jalen Rose’s career and nearly ended Reggie Miller’s with a championship. His teams finished first in offensive efficiency twice and never lower than fourth. He also coaxed a top-5 defense out of the 1998 group. In his three seasons with Indiana, he was very nearly a perfect basketball coach.

Why he misses the list: He believes that a coach’s message gets stale, so after three seasons he retired rather than risk ruining what he’d built. No coach deserves to make this list on only three years of work, not even Bird.

Steve Kerr:

Why he’s great: He took over a young No. 6 seed and turned it into a potential dynasty. He brought his own ideas (benching Andre Iguodala for Harrison Barnes) without being too egotistical to ignore his assistants (bring Iguodala back in for Andrew Bogut in the 2015 Finals) or raw meritocracy (moving Draymond Green into the starting lineup). Like Bird, he’s done just about everything right as coach of the Warriors.

Why he misses the list: Also like Bird, his tenure was too short to be seriously considered. Should he continue on this trajectory, though, he’ll make it in a few years.

Lenny Wilkens:

Why he’s great: Besides the expansion Sonics in 1970, Wilkens joined six separate teams as head coach and all six saw their records improve after his hiring. In many cases, such as his second tenure in Seattle or his stint in Atlanta, their win total improved by double digits under Wilkins. Few coaches in NBA history can claim such a remarkable record in turning around teams, a testament to the approachability of Wilkens’ schemes and personality.

Why he misses the list: He never found a permanent home. Wilkens’ message often grew stale in five years or so, turning him into a poor man’s version of Larry Brown. He was also far from a brilliant tactician, his schemes growing tired particularly in his later years. Oh, and he has also lost more NBA games than any coach in history. So there’s that.

Bill Sharman:

Why he’s great: Understood Wilt Chamberlain on a level few others ever did, managing to use him to give Jerry West his first NBA championship. Kept his players motivated enough to win 33 games in a row, a feat that has not been matched since. He also invented the morning shootaround, a staple of NBA game preparation that is still used by every single team today.

Why he misses the list: A combination of longevity and X’s and O’s. Sharman was great at keeping his players up and motivated while also managing egos, but without Jerry West managing the team on the court Sharman couldn’t keep the Lakers above water. In his final season, he finished below .500 despite having Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his team.

Erik Spoelstra:

Why he’s great: Kept perhaps the most scrutinized team in NBA history afloat while they found their identity. Once they did, he let them run with it, becoming arguably the best small-ball team of all time. Managed to build a championship-caliber offense around two high-usage wings who aren’t known for their three-point shooting. Only Phil Jackson can say the same. And his hair is magnificent.

Why he misses the list: He’s notoriously slow on adjustments, almost choking away two straight championships by stubbornly playing a traditional point guard and center with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh until an injury to Bosh forced his hand. It’s also fair to wonder how much credit any coach would deserve considering LeBron may have been the greatest player ever during his Heat tenure.